Define Frenzy: Asian Queerness

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Define Frenzy: Asian Queerness

“Define Frenzy” is a series of weekly essays for Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen. You can read last year’s essays here and last week’s essay here.

My friend, critic and writer Inkoo Kang, and I have a running joke-cum-debate.

Since the show premiered in 2005, I believe, with my raisin-sized heart, that the middle child of the Huang family on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, who goes by the name of Emery (Forrest Wheeler), is queer—at the very least potentially. Inkoo believes I am the only one who thinks this, and disagrees, reasonably so. She and I both know that Asian American presentations of masculinity don’t fit within conventional white American presentations and performances of masculinity, and thus are often read as queer, or at the very least, sexless. This is aided and abetted by the long history of the emasculating of Asian American men in the United States, often utilizing Asian male characters in film and TV as comic eunuchs, totally devoid of interiority (nevermind a sense of their own eroticism). I like to read Emery as being part of a lineage of the profound experiences and stories of queer Asian men, partially because there are so few of them that aren’t half-assed jokes or barely written punch lines. What we have, though, can be humane and beautiful and complex, like the characters that lead Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together (1997) and American director Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night (2016), both films that deal with queer sexuality within an Asian and Asian-American context.

Wong Kar-Wai makes films that are like memories printed on ribbon, imbuing his works with a textural elasticity that dances in the wind, or can slow down time. In the Mood for Love is the only way I like to get drunk, but Happy Together can even supersede that film with its empathy and detailed characters. Somewhat improvised, the film explores the tempestuous relationship of Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung), whose move to Argentina from Hong Kong acts as a desire to fix the broken relationship that both men still care deeply about but nonetheless struggle to navigate. They are abusive to one another, self-destructive, and their relocation does nothing to repair the damage in the relationship. But, through Leung’s thoughtful, sensitive voice over, it’s clear how indelible the touch, sound and experience of and with Ho has been to him. For these men, they are able to unearth, forcibly and otherwise, the rawness in both themselves and the other. The English transliteration of the film’s original Mandarin title is “Exposed skin together.”

It worth noting that the casting in this film is interesting for two reasons: Leslie Cheung’s career has long included playing with gender and masculinity, his somewhat androgynous looks used to the hilt in films like Farewell, My Concubine. He is also one of the first major Chinese stars to come out as bisexual, which once garnered controversy for—including in one of his music videos—intimacy with another man. Tony Leung, in contrast, has become an icon of cool, vaguely James Bond-esque masculinity. Both actors subvert their images in Happy Together, mining from a full well of emotions: Cheung is aloof, manipulative, sometimes even steely, and Leung longs after his on-again/off-again lover, every look colored by the pain of loss and sadness. You have here characters whose understanding of time and love and heartbreak is defined by how they spent it together and apart, revolving around the other even when they’re not together. They have perspective and interiority. The way that the relationship comes together and falls apart, the way they “start over,” as Ho repeats, the way they stop and start and stop, is palpable, as if the various colors and formats Wong uses to shoot the film are embedded with the exposed emotion of each character. The raw skin is on film.

While Happy Together is shot in swoony, florid colors, in high-contrast black and white, feeling like it’s constantly moving, roving around the mind of its characters, Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night takes another approach. Dissatisfaction is boring—not in the way that it is a boring thing to talk about, but in the way that it is boring to experience. Anxiety about oneself becomes so routine that it’s another layer of malaise in one’s life. So goes the story of the Korean-American son of immigrants, David (Joe Seo), whose family restaurant and SAT scores are floundering. He works out frequently, looking into the mirror, hoping what’s there—not uncommon: the “insignificant” body type and aesthetic—will change to become ideal, attractive, powerful physically and aesthetically and erotically. He envies his cousin, who goes to university, beyond the watchful eyes of parents. He is occasionally called gay, and his eyes linger with marginal frequency.

In order to help support his family, David takes a job at a Korean spa, where, through the mist and lit by nothing, men act on their physical desire in the dark. It’s like a steam room hookup: transactional, brief, anonymous, habitual. David’s discovery of this activity unlocks and unleashes both desire and even more anxiety about his place in the world, about the many facets of who he is and who he thinks he’s supposed to be. His routine, which Ahn films with both genuine curiosity as well as with the recognition that there’s a mundanity to the activities, is disrupted. With new opportunity to access something within himself, Ahn sensitively and beautifully allows David to expose his skin.

The number of queer Asian characters that reach the United States in some form, and the critical and cultural discourse, is limited, and their presentations even more so. There are any number of sitcom characters—these props to be thrown aside—but Wong Kar-Wai and Andrew Ahn are proof you can do it right. Certainly, the style of character writing that exists in those films doesn’t really fit an American family sitcom, yet Emery—who is literary, witty, sensitive, well-dressed—is who I want to see.

I’m projecting a bit. Emery’s sexuality has never been explicitly addressed, although there’s a passing joke in one episode about his desire to retaliate against a bully with a poem. His father, played by Randall Park, hesitates a moment, and begins a sentence regarding Broadway. Emery is quick to assuage him that it’s not that. But that joke feels intense, acute and hopeful to me: What if Emery were queer? Emery is already a character who, in spite of his technically supporting role on the show, has been written with a sense of self-awareness and point of view, not as merely the bumbling, femme-y, one-dimensional nonsense of other Asian queers. He has a cultivated sense of taste, and, when given his own storylines, an evident perceptiveness that’s rare for almost any character on television, regardless of race, age, or gender or sexual identity. In an ideal world, if Emery were queer, he could manifest as wide the emotions as the men of Happy Together, or excavate the placement of oneself like in Spa Night. He could be someone young queer Asians look up to. It’s a lot to put on him, and I don’t want to do that since the character isn’t officially queer, but, in my childhood, it would have been nice to have seen a character who was Asian and queer and OK with exposing their skin.

Kyle Turner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Village Voice, Slate and Little White Lies. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.

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